By on May 23, 2016

2013 Jeep Trailhawk II Front

Don’t do it for us. Do it for yourself.

Jeep is not a purveyor of transportation appliances. It creates and markets lifestyle products built on its off-road reputation. And the brand is not well positioned to compete in the increasingly crowded SUV/CUV space based purely on quality and everyday performance. But that’s okay, because Jeep can drive growth by playing to the strengths that brought it 865,000 customers last year, the essence of which is extreme off-road capability.

Jeep sales grew a dizzying 25 percent in the United States last year. Through the first third of 2016, the brand is tracking for two-percent growth. Blowing past the elusive one million sales mark in the U.S., and staying there, will not be easy. The Wrangler will continue to anchor the emotional identity of the brand, but Jeep would benefit from diversification as the top. To continue its impressive seven consecutive years of growth, Jeep should offer two distinct, yet equally capable products that speak to enthusiasts and mainstream consumers alike.

Jeep needs to build a hardcore, off-road version of the Grand Cherokee.

2017 Ford Raptor front, Image: Ford

Over the last decade, automakers have become adept at using platform adaptations to drive a wedge between traditional market categories to cleave off new segments. The Germans have been prolific in this regard, but the domestics and Japanese brands are on board too. And not just with cars. Ford, Jeep, Ram, and Toyota have each taken risks with narrowly focused off-road oriented products and have proven, when done right, a robust market for factory prepared, off-road rigs exists.

Wrangler and F-150 were seemingly made for the modifications necessary to build their unique Rubicon and Raptor derivatives. But neither of these extensive adaptations was a sure thing. Ford was gleeful in 2010 when it announced the sale of just 7,085 Raptors in year one. And the Rubicon wouldn’t exist had it not been for a small group of mid-level insiders who had years of patience to go along with their shared vision of off-road purity. The strategy of taking an already capable high-volume vehicle and creating an off-road monster is now well established, moderating the risk of bringing such products to market.

2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock

Tapping into the lucrative vein of off-road enthusiasm requires three elements. First, the product must feature a dramatic visual presence. This generally means an elevated ride height coupled with plus-size tires. Second, it must have genuine standout off-road chops. Third, its brand must craft and invest in a unique lifestyle message that elevates the product to aspirational status. The Rubicon enjoys a nearly irrefutable reputation, while Ford has repeatedly taken the Raptor to Baja, Dakar, and elsewhere to establish its reputation. Regardless, if you’re an OEM, you want your rig on posters in the bedrooms of adolescents and the workshops of enthusiasts across the land.

The F-150 Raptor and Wrangler Rubicon are top-of-mind examples, each with sales exceeding 20,000 units annually. Toyota’s TRD Pro and Ram’s Power Wagon are also successful instances of what can be accomplished when OEMs go beyond shocks, skid plates, and stickers. These rigs, when properly executed and appropriately marketed, become halo vehicles that not only drive showroom traffic, but elevate average transaction prices and increase profit margins. Jeep and Ford have checked each of these boxes with the Rubicon and Raptor. Ram and Toyota have also developed visually distinctive, genuinely capable off-roaders in their Power Wagon and TRD Pro products, but have been less effective in wrapping a lifestyle message around them.

2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland

Jeep can capitalize on the Grand Cherokee to extend the brand’s off-road reputation and generate new sales. The Grand Cherokee, internally designated WK2, is the third best-selling nameplate in the Jeep range, accounting for 22 percent of sales in the United States and Canada in 2015 (Wrangler 24 percent, Cherokee 27 percent). Additionally, it is well differentiated versus the Wrangler, has 23 years of market longevity, competitive powertrains, and legitimate off-road capability in its current incarnations.

What’s more, Jeep has demonstrated a readiness to use the WK2 as a showcase for innovation. Grand Cherokees have formed the basis for concepts at three of the last four Easter Jeep Safaris, held each spring in Moab, Utah. In 2013, Jeep showed the Trailhawk II. This concept featured 35-inch tires facilitated through revised bodywork. It had no lift. In 2014, it brought the Trail Warrior to Utah. This concept was an exercise in aesthetic modifications and not hardcore, Wrangler-challenging capability. For 2015, Jeep prepared the Overlander, which featured 34-inch rubber sitting under an almost imperceptible one-inch lift.

2014 Trail Warrior Rear

Jeep already offers the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, which includes legitimate upgrades to the already Trail Rated off-road packages available across the Grand Cherokee range. However, Trailhawk is to the Grand Cherokee as the FX4 is to F-150 — a low-cost enhancement ideal for treacherous driveways and the occasional fire or logging road. Trailhawk does not get enthusiasts’ blood pumping and it does not contain the elements necessary to develop a halo product.

There is more to producing an enthusiast magnet than lifting and badging — each product needs a purpose. Broadly speaking, there are two off-road genres. The go-anywhere work-a-day off-roader, as epitomized by the Rubicon, and the high-speed desert busting pre-runner, as exemplified by the Raptor. The Jeep brand is better aligned with low-velocity rock-crawling adventure rigs than pre-runners. And a modified WK2 could be designed to mine the go-anywhere enthusiast seam. However, the purpose of adding another hyper-capable off-roader to the Jeep lineup is to extend the brand’s reputation and appeal. Moreover, the Raptor’s charm has as much to do with its appearance as it does with the knowledge that it can rip across a desert with race-truck authority — and then take you to work the next morning. High-velocity excitement is what Jeep should tap into with the hardcore Grand Cherokee.

2015 Overlander

Creating the uber Grand Cherokee would require a real effort, but as with the industry benchmark Raptor and Rubicon, high-quality bones are already there. Specific modifications would include 33- to 34-inch tires on 17-inch wheels, along with a 2- to 3-inch lift, preferably co-developed with a brand enhancing name such as Fox Racing, TeraFlex, or American Expedition Vehicles. The Quadra-Lift Air Suspension allowing variable ride heights would be eliminated. Front and rear tracks would be stretched, and based on Jeep’s 2013 Trailhawk II concept with 35 inch rubber, broader fenders with larger openings would be required. The approach angle would be increased with a purposeful bumper mounting a pair of off-road lights and a subtle pre-runner skid plate under center. The departure angle would be improved with a new rear bumper mounting a full-size spare tire. Robust rock sliders and under-body protection would also be specified. Rounding-out the exterior modifications would be trim-specific wheels and two or three unique paint colors.

For every consumer seeking the well-engineered capabilities of a factory prepared off-roader with one-stop financing and factory warranty, there are at least two others who simply want to associate themselves with the Jeep image, and Jeep needs to appeal to as many customers as possible. Therefore, the interior packaging strategy should borrow from the Power Wagon playbook with a hose-it-out base model for committed enthusiasts, supplemented by mid and high-end trims, likely Limited and Overland, for those seeking luxury to go with their desert dreams. In addition to these interior considerations, some gauge and upholstery badging would be necessary.

2013 Grand Cherokee Trailhawk II Concept

A powerful demand enhancing tool would be to limit the Grand Cherokee to Hemi and EcoDiesel power and to offer each of these engines in a unique tune. Ford appears to be executing a similar strategy with the 2017 Raptor, though Jeep would not need to go whole-hog to deliver a material degree of differentiation from the rest of the Grand Cherokee range. Modifications to the intake, exhaust, and electronics of both power plants could deliver an inexpensive yet meaningful 20-30 horsepower bump. And the more the better, because consumers shopping this segment will be motivated by more grunt. If Jeep wants to take the gloves off, it could specify the rumored turbocharged Pentastar V6 or even Hellcat power, which is already being shoe-horned between the Grand Cherokee’s front wheels for the upcoming SRT.

The Raptor and 4Runner TRD Pro account for three to four percent of total sales for their parent nameplates. The Rubicon delivers a greater fraction of sales for Wrangler. If the Super Grand Cherokee generated a conservative three to four percent of WK2 sales, Jeep would find homes for 6,000 to 8,500 units a year, almost certainly enough to justify developing a hardcore, off-road oriented Grand Cherokee all on its own. And when taking into account the brand-building value of such a product, the project becomes a must.

If you want one, start making noise. Let Jeep CEO Mike Manley know now because the next generation Grand Cherokee drops in 2020, and FCA won’t be investing in major upgrades to the WK2 in its final two years of production.

[Images: FCA, Ford]

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35 Comments on “Dear Mr. Manley, Please Build an Off-Road Grand Cherokee...”

  • avatar

    I see plenty of Grand Cherokees on the road, but very few – like one out of 50 are SRT.

    The vast majority are just being used to haul a family…packing a V6 with 8 speed AWD.

    The people seem to love it. I get lots of complements on mine.

    For people living in rocky areas, hills and mountains such as the Poconos, this would be perfect.

  • avatar

    Range Rover doesn’t have a hardcore version and with that being the high end JGC’s prime competitor I feel what works for RR works for JGC. Makes about as much sense as a BMW M7…. people who are serious about off roading would sooner build up a Wrangler or throw a lift kit on their JGC.

    • 0 avatar

      Wrangler isn’t luxurious enough. This Grand Cherokee WILL sell if they market it right. Too many creature comforts missing.

    • 0 avatar

      If you want a hardcore Range Rover you buy a Land Rover LR4 or a Defender in markets outside of North America.

      I’m surprised they don’t offer an off-road version of the GC. Especially considering that the Cherokee and Renegade offer something for people who want to go farther off the beaten path.

  • avatar

    They used to make upcountry equipped GC’S back in the day with a small lift, tow hooks skid plates and a limited slip and some other goodies. My 1998 grand has a 2″ lift 31s, and far too many other things to list. Its holds its own just fine with the big boys, the last trail I went on had a new wrangler Rubicon blow two tires and break a winch cable getting stuck, but my grand Cherokee mall crawler made it through everything fine. I think not having solid axles in the new wk2 does hurt it quite a bit as far as aftermarket offroad friendliness goes. But if they made a mopar package or trim level like me described, it would do wonders for its image in the market, and even in a jeep enthusiast like myself eyes. When it was first released the grand Cherokee was touted as an offroad vehicle FIRST, with luxury second. Its fun to read all the old advertisements of it, and see what its become nowadays.

  • avatar

    Through most of this story, I was just thinking how cool the off road, glass roof yellow Explorer was in Jurassic Park.

    My first real exposure to SUVs – and what a cool moment that was.

    I think the GC has become just a bit too fancy and on-roady for this sort of modification. An XJ it is not.

  • avatar

    I think Seth is right that Jeep needs to reinforce its image; without the brand, they are just selling low quality CR-Vs.

    But the issue with a JGC offroad variant is that the market for $50K+ off-road vehicles is tiny. I think Toyota and Ford have it wrapped up by now.

  • avatar

    Yeah but see a Grand Cherokee is like a Range Rover or a Toyota Land Cruiser in that they have off road cred without turning into something that looks like you drug it through a catalog and purchased everything your wallet would bear.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you can get pretty close to the Grand Cherokee being suggested by checking enough boxes, if you’ll empty your wallet, get a huge loan and sell some blood. You may still have to visit an after-market specialist, but you can make a JGC as off-road competent as you want. What puzzles me is the call for more luxury. Most serious off-roaders strip their Wranglers of that sissy stuff anyway. They’ll do the same to the GC.

  • avatar

    “Creating the uber Grand Cherokee would require a real effort, but as with the industry benchmark Raptor and Rubicon, high-quality bones are already there.” I disagree, the bones are NOT there, otherwise you would see the aftermarket stepping in and filling the void. Suspension articulation … that is what’s missing from the JGC bones to make it good off road. All the other mentioned vehicles have at least 1 solid axle.

    • 0 avatar

      A succinct and (IMO) correct analysis of the situation. Jeep has more than enough ‘offroad cred’ wrapped up in the Wrangler Rubicons, and it already bleeds over to the Grand Cherokee. As others have stated, the current GC is very much a lux SUV that can be pressed into offroad duty in a pinch. This isn’t an old ZJ/WJ that you can easily and cheaply lift and throw big tires on. The loss of solid axles ultimately constrain it to its more pavement-centric role, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To give it credit where it is due, the GC in proper trim is indeed very capable thanks to well calibrated electronic traction aids that help it overcome very poor articulation, particularly when the air suspension is raised there there is no more suspension ‘droop’ left.

  • avatar

    This is an appealing idea, but the product price is important. For example, I would not buy anything beyond $45k, no matter how good it is. I would rather swap the t-case on the Rubi for something with a diff for AWD capability and tolerate the ride and interior instead of forking off that much cash.

  • avatar

    I would buy one these today. I have an 01 Jeep Grand Cherokee, also with a 2 inch lift and 31 inch tires. I’ve been looking to replace it for a month and I can’t find anything I like. Closest I can get is the new 4 Runner and I’ll probably end up settling for one. When I test drive the 4 Runner and get into my Jeep I actually like the Jeep better but it is just getting too old. I’m too old for the new Wrangler and the New Grand Cherokee is horrible offroad. The 4Runner has bad handling, underwhelming engine, and horrible ergonomics. That reliability though almost makes it all worth it. But a true offoad Grand Cherokee would be perfect for me. I’m not trying to rock crawl with it, just get to some places safely off the beaten path. If they make it I hope the don’t make the mistake of making it a luxury only edition as well. Theses vehicles are becoming like the BMW M class. just status symbols.

    • 0 avatar

      Try one with KDSS, a pricey option but it apparently is an entirely different vehicle to drive in terms of cutting down on unwanted body motions. Maybe consider a used GX460? That gets you Toyota’s small V8, and I think some flavor of adjustable suspension as well. I’m guessing you have an upper-trim WJ with the 4.7 Powertech now.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks. I can’t find one with KDSS, hard to find Trail models at all in stock, they are all either SR5s or Limiteds. I’m usually a buy it used person but with the resale value on the 4 Runner and Gx460 it makes more sense to buy it new. Also I would feel bad using a GX460 they way I intend to use this. Yes, my Jeep is the V8 but is a lower trim. I could get use to the engine on the 4 Runner, but it sure is hard liking the old car better than the new. Will try to find a KDSS one, the handling is my biggest problem, oh and the dash. I drove the new Tacoma too. I actually liked the handling more and the dash, just had problems getting in and out of it. Also the engine was worse.

    • 0 avatar
      Big Al from Oz

      By the sounds of your tag you are a diehard Jeep fan. Here’s some links that should interest you;

      Here’s an article on some of our midsize 4×4 SUVs offerings. As you can see the Grand Cherokee doesn’t even make it into the comparison.×4-wagons-comparison-test/

      Toyota FJ Series …… for the sentimental types,

      And the alternative to a midsize SUV, the midsize ute,

      I hope you do enjoy the reading.

      • 0 avatar

        Wow, totally irrelevant advice for a US-based poster from BAFO, I’m SHOCKED! :p

        I’d say a good replacement might be a late-4th gen 4Runner (made up until ’09) with the optional 4.7L. Or a used GX470, the prices are basically even and with the GX the 4.7L comes standard. GX will have more upright seating due to the taller roof and a side-hinged door with no roll down rear window. Some more insulation and slightly better materials. GX will need the plastic trim (running boards and mudflaps) tossed before it sees any trails IMO.

        If you’re willing to wheel a brand new $38k 4Runner Trail, I’d say it’s silly to be concerned about scratching up a $35k GX460

        • 0 avatar

          Yes the most fun 4×4 is a old paid for 4×4. I would be willing to moderately wheel the brand new 4 Runner, but I wouldn’t want to mess it up too bad. I think the 4Runner can survive a bit better unscathed than the GX. It won’t have the fancier suspension and the running boards. I suspect the approach angle is way better. But in my mind a 4 Runner with some pinstiping on it adds character. On the GX not so much. Really nice aftermarket support for the 4 Runner. Anything I break I can get an upgraded part for it like front bumper. I’ll keep it for 10+ years, as time goes by I’ll abuse it more. I would want something newer than a 2009.

      • 0 avatar

        @ Big AL. Thanks I enjoy all makes. Just always happened to have at least one Jeep since 1997. I guess it will end soon.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    The Grand Cherokee is a moderately well performing off road vehicle. I don’t foresee the Grand being able to be a Raptor unless lots of cash is injected into vehicle development and manufacturing a better off roader.

    It’s best left as it is. Remember the platform the Grand is based on, more or less a very light SUV or I would describe it as a CUV.

    It’s a pity you guys in the US are more reliant on OEM off roaders, rather than having a real healthy after market arrangement. I prefer the latter as it gives you the ability to build exactly what you need.

    The Grand is a nice medium off road package and as I have alluded to more CUV than SUV in off road performance and hard (expensive) to modify by the manufacturer into a great off roader.

    Fiat/Chrysler would be better off working out how to improve reliability of the Grand Cherokee first.

    • 0 avatar

      We don’t have a healthy off-road aftermarket? What gave you that impression? If anything, the off-road aftermarket is already larger than everything the OEMs offer.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        I’m using Australia as a comparison and what I’m used to. You guys tend to buy at lot of OEM vehicles. Badges in other words to give the impression of off road prowess.

        Come over and check out our after market off road industry. You’ll then see what I mean.

        In your defense you have a larger off road after market industry than say France or the Netherlands or most other EU countries.

        • 0 avatar

          You’re joking, right? The US has the largest off-road aftermarket in the world. I’d be surprised if even ARB has more revenue in Australia.

          • 0 avatar
            Big Al from Oz

            I’m joking. Australia does have a larger market for 4×4 aftermarket products. You guys have to stop looking at size. It seems to the few in the US quantity matters.

            Purchasing 4×4 products in Australia is significantly better as they are more readily available.

            Also, it seems here we buy a 4×4 and actually personalise the vehicle. Whereas in the US you tend to buy a appearance package style 4×4.

            Also, standard equipment on a 4×4 straight “off the shelf” here seems to be better. We don’t need to invest in the appearance options to gain traction aids, etc. A base model pickup 4×4 has the same 4×4 system as the top of the line 4×4.

            I do believe we have a healthier off road culture than the US giving us a “larger” market.

  • avatar

    As a GC limited owner, they would have to rename it for it to make sense to me.
    There’s nothing grand about a vehicle that can simply be hosed out after use.

  • avatar

    I stopped taking the Grand Cherokee seriously as an off road vehicle when they dropped Select-Trac. The basic 4×4 system doesn’t even have low range and none of the systems offer a 2 wheel drive mode. That’s a deal breaker.

    It’s a glorified CUV at this point.

  • avatar

    I own a 2011 Laredo 4×4 with Quadra track. It is a great system and gets me to do light offroading in Georgia fire roads. What I love about the vehicle after almost 61,000 miles, the structure is so solid. It is still quiet inside on the road. I have the 17 inch wheels so that may help. Inside it still amazes me how really nice the material quality is. To the point, after 40,000 miles I enjoy it so much, I spent the extra money for $1000 and had the seats professionally covered by leather even though the cloth was still in good shape. It is by far the best American made vehicle I have owned in over 35 years of car ownership. Not as good as Honda Accord quality, but this is a much more complex vehicle.

    Not to mean it hasn’t had some issues. Mine has the pentastar V6 and the engine is smooth with the five speed automatic. At 45,000 miles the thermostat had to be replaced after check engine light came on. The ESIM emissions module had to be replaced at 55,000 miles after CEL on again. One rear window regular replaced at 50,000 miles. One rear taillight replaced after 40,000 miles. One fuse for one of the USB ports that wasn’t functioning replaced at 50,000 miles. Two rear shocks (my own fault for driving it a little hard off road replaced after 42000 miles). I don’t mind a more trail rated Grand Cherokee, but it is such a great vehicle, I wouldn’t hesitate buying another one for one second in its current form.

  • avatar

    Have they stopped paving Whole Foods parking lots? IS there no roads leading to the mall anymore?

    Then there is no possible economic reason for such a thing.

    • 0 avatar

      That should be “ARE there no roads,” since “roads” is plural. And at any rate, there was never any economic reason for us to go to the moon, but we did anyway.

  • avatar

    Honestly, I think if Jeep is looking to grow somewhere, other than Raptor-type vehicles (which are a good place to go, mind you) I think they should look into WRC. I’m not even sure FCA is active in WRC right now, but that would by an idea place for “go anywhere” Jeep to showcase itself to the world. You can work in Abarth and SRT callouts if you want, referencing the suspension, powertrain, etc, but I would love to see the rumoured Renegade Trackhawk come from a WRC variant. Then again, TRACK-hawk is a dumb appelation for go-anywhere Jeep anyway. Call it RoadHawk or RallyHawk.

    In fact, try this on for size:

    RallyHawk – WRC-style setup, compete with the WRX, Juke NISMO, etc
    DesertHawk (yeah, I know, trademark issues) – Medium-duty off-roading and desert driving, Raptor-style
    TrailHawk – Rock crawling and mountain busting, classic Jeep style.

  • avatar
    White Shadow

    Fact of the matter is that a regular Grand Cherokee has far more off-road capability than 99% of owners will ever need or use. That’s even true for models with 20″ wheels standard, like the Overland or Summit. People generally don’t take their $50K SUVs of road. Maybe in ten years when they are beaters, but definitely not when new. An off-road version is silly and it wouldn’t sell very well, especially compared to the base version.

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